Qiu Xiaofei, who lives and works in Beijing, studied painting there at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, receiving his degree in 2002. Although he first began as a figurative artist, his art now is a luxurious mélange of abstraction, geometric forms such as spheres, and luscious impasto highly reminiscent of the New York School. Yet the motivation for his art is quite different from that of Action painting in New York; Qiu struggles to merge personal difficulties, awareness of mortality, and spiritual life in these highly—but not completely—abstract paintings.
When an Asian artist paints like this, there is an ongoing question, which doesn’t go away: just how much influence has the Chinese painter received from Western sources? Such a dated question has been repeated in criticism to the point of absurdity, but nevertheless must be asked again in the face of work that incorporates foreign styles with such elegant ease. At this point, Qiu certainly knows what he is doing; this sort of abstraction has become more or less an international language—one that began in New York but has expanded to include practices from all over the world. In China especially, the ink culture provides painters with a superficial understanding of Ab-Ex styling; the trick is to make it new, and profound, again.
On ViewPace Gallery, 25th Street
March 11 – April 23, 2016
The paintings engage in all-over exuberance and deep colors. Temple Base (2014 – 15) consists of a luminous evergreen in the upper center of the painting that is surrounded by a fiery orange nimbus. The top half of the painting, above the tree, is mostly white, but the bottom half consists of a big, messy passage of curling bands of white and gray, while five Buddha figures sit in meditative repose beneath. Flowing downward are a series of thin linear drips. This is a spiritual painting in a highly secular time, and Qiu is to be commended for a rare vision of spirituality, albeit one crowded in by the mass of abstract shapes. We are wise not to interpret it too heavily, but it seems like the chaos of modern life is encroaching on the imagery of devotion. Qiu’s style, if his method can be called a style, is brought about by equal parts of disorderly abstraction and elements that are distinctly articulated. The paintings can hardly be called precise, but that is because they embrace a manner that emphasizes gestural expressiveness. It may be that the notion inspiring Temple Base, and Qiu’s other works, is as conceptually clear as each work’s production is busy.
Temple Roof (2015), one of the best of the group Qiu presents in the show, is on one level an emotionally charged painting of abstraction, complete with inchoate swaths and delineated geometric shapes: rectangles of yellow, green, and mauve collide with thin disks painted sideways so that the attenuated edges of the form are prominent. It is hard to discern architecture in the composition, despite the fact that the title, Temple Roof, indicates the structure of a building. In the upward angle of the yellow rectangles especially, the viewer might pick up the slant of a roof, but it is hard to say. Perhaps Qiu is most eloquent when he is most evocative—when the gap between what is actually seen and what is imagined closes, and we are asked to examine the interplay between the two. Temple Roof, like Temple Base, refers to a building used for religious purposes. It may be difficult to imagine a current artist addressing spiritual concerns, yet Qiu makes the point that an interest in reverence is not outside the boundaries of contemporary art. Still, it is not that Qiu is a painter of devotion; rather, his art addresses many concerns, and spirituality is one of them.
The remarkable painting Cloud and Mist (2015) is unlike the other works in the exhibition. Mist-like and vaporous, the work is composed of amorphous, colored bands layered on top of each other: red on top of slate blue on top of yellow, separated into two parts by a bluish bar. It is a beautifully evocative picture, one that filled the gallery space with its soft, atmospheric aura of color. Inevitably, the Western viewer will look to find a correspondence with art from the New York School; inevitably, Cloud and Mist reminds us of Rothko’s efforts. Yet that is not really the point. We have to learn to accept Qiu’s efforts as indicative of an amalgam of styles and influences, which carry him into a worldwide dialogue of paintings, at a time when globalism has become inevitable. At the gallery, it was explained to me that the spheres in a work like Zero Gravity No. 1 (2015) refer to skulls and death, and are also meant to imbue the composition with dynamism and movement; interestingly, Qiu works both with paint and remembrance in ways that extend our dialogue between abstraction and real life.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.